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China-FCA merger could be a win-win for everyone but politicians

NEW YORK — Fiat Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne has said the car industry needs to come together, cut costs and stop incinerating capital. So far, his words have mostly fallen on deaf ears among competitors in Europe and North America. But it appears Marchionne has finally found a receptive audience — in China.

FCA shares soared Monday after trade publication Automotive News reported the $18 billion Italian-American conglomerate controlled by the Agnelli family rebuffed a takeover from an unidentified carmaker from the Chinese mainland. As ugly as the politics of such a combination may appear at first blush, a transaction could stack up industrially, and perhaps even financially.

A Sino-U.S.-European merger would create the first truly global auto group. That could push consolidation to the next level elsewhere. Moreover, China is the world's top market for the SUVs that Jeep effectively invented, so it might benefit FCA financially. A combo would certainly help upgrade the domestic manufacturer; Chinese carmakers have gotten better at making cars, but struggle to build global brands, and they need to develop export markets.

Though frivolous overseas shopping excursions by Chinese enterprises are being reined in by Beijing, acquisitions that support the modernization and transformation of strategic industries still receive support, and the government considers the automotive industry to be strategic. A purchase of FCA by Guangzhou Automobile, Great Wall or Dongfeng Motors would probably get the same stamp of approval ChemChina was given for its $43 billion takeover of Syngenta.

What's standing in the way? Apart from price (Automotive News said FCA's board deemed the offer insufficient) there's the not-insignificant matter of politics. Even as FCA shares soared, President Donald Trump interrupted his vacation to instruct the U.S. Trade Representative to look into whether to investigate China's trade policies on intellectual property.

Seeing storied Detroit brands like Jeep, Chrysler, Ram and Dodge handed off to a Chinese company would provoke howls among Trump's economic-nationalist supporters. It might not play well in Italy, either, to see Alfa Romeo and Maserati answering to Wuhan instead of Turin — though Automotive News said they might be spun off separately.

Yet, as Morgan Stanley observes, "cars don't ship across oceans easily," and political considerations increasingly demand local manufacture of valuable products. Combining with General Motors, as Marchionne once proposed, would have led to massive job cuts and plant closures. Opposing a Chinese bid for FCA makes an easy, inflammable tweet. Keeping Americans employed takes something a bit more rigorous.

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